Zanzibar has a very rich history and was once one of the most important areas in East Africa. Following Vasco de Gama’s visit in 1499, Zanzibar was ruled by the Portuguese and remained this way for almost two centuries.
Nowadays, it’s one of the most popular beach destinations in Africa and with good reasons. Zanzibar’s coastline offers some of the best beaches in the world, but sand and surf vary depending on what side of the island you’re on. On the east coast, waves break over coral reefs and sand bars offshore, and low tide reveals small pools of starfish, small minnows, and anemones. Up north, ocean swimming is much less susceptible to the tides, and smooth beaches and white sand make for dazzling days in the sun.
I spent numerous months traveling around Zanzibar as you can read in my detailed cost of living breakdown of Zanzibar. I stayed in numerous areas all over the island, really allowing me to get a feel of the place. This guide will serve to give an overview of all the things you need to know about traveling here!
How to get to Zanzibar
Zanzibar is easily accessible from the world now. It’s built itself as the premier beach destination in East Africa and it’s accessibility proves it. It’s not as upscale as the Seychelles and positions itself as a place both budget and luxury travelers can visit.
Zanzibar island is well connected by international flights around the world. Qatar flies direct from Doha allowing travelers from Europe and America to easily visit. In addition, Ethiopian Airlines has directs flights from Addis Ababa to Zanzibar allowing for easy international connections. Flights are getting cheaper by the day and it’s easy to use miles nowadays to book trips to Zanzibar.
From Tanzania, you can quickly reach Zanzibar by air from popular places like Kilimanjaro and Arusha. If you’re staying deep in the Serengeti like Seronera, you can take direct flights to Zanzibar.
Take the ferry to Zanzibar
If you are traveling through Tanzania and on a tight budget (or just want to take a ferry on the high seas), there are regular ferry services from Dar Es Salaam to Zanzibar. This is a popular way to get to the island as it’s fast and cheaper than a flight. While flights will be roughly $60-80 one way, the ferry is half the cost.
From Dar Es Salaam’s main port, there are four ferries a day making this trip. The ferries are mostly newer with plenty of outdoor space allowing you to stretch out and enjoy the views. They seem to make new ferries every few years and on my recent trip in 2020, the ferry took 1h 45min to make the trip from Dar to Stone Town.
When you purchase your ticket in Dar Es Salaam, just make sure to reject the swarms of people that will offer to take your bag to the ferry. This is unnecessary and although they’re trying to make a living, you don’t need anyone to take your bags. The ferry terminal is pretty standard with a waiting room that you can absolutely get to yourself.
As Zanzibar is part of Tanzania, it is subject to the same visa and entry requirements of the mainland. For most Western travelers, you will need a visa to enter Zanzibar/Tanzania.
The entry visa can be:
- Purchased on arrival at the airport. The cost of this is $50 for every nationality besides the US which is $100.
- Purchased online as an e-visa before arrival
In recent years, you can even pay for the visas by using a credit card! No need to pay using USD cash anymore.
When to visit Zanzibar – best time of year
Zanzibar enjoys warm weather year round. The sun is strong and all your tropical beach dreams will be fulfilled here. Nevertheless, there are some times that are better than others. Here is a breakdown of the seasons in Zanzibar.
High Season: June to October
Right after the stormy season, starting from June is when the high season begins. This time of year sees cooler temperatures but almost no rainfall. It’s popular as many people will visit the Serengeti during this time to witness the Great Migration and come to Zanzibar for beach time afterwards.
Second High Season: Dec to Feb
December to February is the next high season. The temperatures are much warmer during these months and there’s a general low amount of rainfall. This is also the high season for winds which makes places like Paje extremely popular for kitesurfers.
Rainy Season: Mar to May
The big rainy season in Zanzibar is between March and May. During this time, lots of the resorts close down as you can see torrential downpours for weeks on end. Many of the people I spoke with said this time of year sees almost no tourists but it’s a welcome reprieve from the unbearable heat in the months prior.
November is the “small rainy season” where you can see spotty rain showers at various points of the day. I actually spent a month in Zanzibar during this month and did not find it bad at all. Sure there were some days where it rained, but for the most part, it was sunny and beautiful throughout my trip.
Different areas of Zanzibar
Zanzibar is a huge island. From north to south it is over 200km and 100km from east to west. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to explore the whole island on a trip if you have anything under a month.
If you’re visiting just to go to a resort for a week or less, it’s likely you’ll stay in one area and never leave that part of Zanzibar. Having spent over a month on the island, I was able to explore most of the island without much effort.
For the most part, Zanzibar is beautiful all around. You will find beautiful beaches, stunning properties and picturesque ocean views everywhere.
The capital of Zanzibar is where everyone will start off. Whether you fly or take a ferry, you will stop in Stone Town. Whether you choose to spend a night or two in the vibrant capital is up to you. If you’re looking for beautiful tropical beaches, this is not the place.
The town is worth a night or two in my opinion if you have the time on your trip.
Nungwi and Kendwa
Located in the far north, Nungwi and Kendwa have in my opinion the most beautiful beaches on the island. The tides are not so extreme and you don’t see the crazy amounts of seaweed and sea urchins that you will find elsewhere. Think of stunning blue beaches and white sand for as far as you can see.
Nungwi is also home to all the huge luxury resorts. If you’re keen for upscale all inclusive 5* resorts with beautiful beaches, Nungwi is your place. Resorts like the Riu, Zuri, and Gemma will satisfy all your desires. Nungwi gets very busy during the high season. In recent years, it’s become somewhat of the party spot. In addition to ultra luxury resorts, there are plenty of budget options here which has kind of turned it into the Phuket equivalent of East Africa.
Kendwa, the town just south of Nungwi is a great option if you want to enjoy the same beaches without the big crowds of people. Both options are prime for enjoying sunsets as the areas in the east, while beautiful, don’t enjoy such things!
Matemwe, Kiwengwa, Pongwe, and the northeast
Matemwe is an area in the northeast of Zanzibar. It’s roughly 1.5 hours from the Stone Town airport by car.
Matemwe is known to be a chilled out beach side area with a collection of boutique hotels. Unlike Nungwi with its huge resorts, there are few standalone restaurants here and no huge hotels. It’s much more chilled, laid back, and offers beautiful views of the beach. Being on the east side, the beaches here have huge high and low tides.
During low tide, the beach extends 500m out to where the reef breaks. It’s fascinating watching the tides come in and out twice a day. I stayed at a beautiful Boutique resort called Zanzibar Sunrise at Bandas which had Makuti style bungalows right in front of the beach.
It’s also the launching point to visit the famous Mnemba Atoll which is the private island off the coast of Zanzibar. This beautiful island is home to a protected Marine park and is home to endless options for scuba diving/snorkeling.
Paje, Jambiani, Michamvi in the southeast
In the southeast of Zanzibar is another very popular area for tourists to stay. This part of Zanzibar has perhaps the best beaches outside of Nungwi. The tides are extremely dramatic but the beaches are mostly sand as opposed to corals and urchins in the north.
Paje is the biggest town here and is the kitesurfing capital of Zanzibar. The winds blow east to west here almost the entire year. Nearby towns like Jambiani, Bwejuu, and Michamvi are also crowd favorites.
The most famous restaurant in Zanzibar, The Rock, is located in this peninsula. It’s well worth the visit if you decide to stay here!
How to get around Zanzibar
Zanzibar being a huge island requires planning to get from place to place. If you’re only staying for a few days, it’s unlikely you’ll need to read up on this because you’ll likely just take a taxi to your resort and call it a day. Here are some general price ranges for taxis that I found from taking taxis all over the island.
Note that these are just broad estimates. Your ability to negotiate and the desperation of your cab driver on the day will dictate your fee. Alternatively, ask your accommodation what they can offer. If you are booking a hotel with a super fancy resort, expect to pay much more than if you’re staying at a more personalized guesthouse.
Stone Town to Matemwe: $30-40
Stone Town to Nungwi: $40-50
Stone Town to Paje: $30-$40
Stone Town to Kiwengwa: $30-$40
Nungwi to Paje: $50-60
Paje to Michamvi: $10-$15
Matemwe or Kiwengwa to Nungwi: $25-30
Budget traveling in Zanzibar
For those that aren’t keen on taxis, then know that Zanzibar is serviced primarily by dala dalas which are the local forms of transport. Think old school hippie style vans. These are common throughout Africa and are the preferred method to get around for those on budgets. Some dala dalas are just trucks with the trunk converted as seating.
This method will be significantly cheaper than taking a taxi and especially useful if you’re a solo traveler. For example, Stone Town to Paje or Stone Town to Nungwi is roughly $2. Of course, with cheaper prices, you can expect it to be much slower. I’d budget for at a dala dala to take 2x as long as a taxi given how often it must stop to pick up and drop off people.
Which areas do I like the most?
Having spent much time on this island, I’ve been able to visit most of the areas. For most tourists, it’s likely you’ll stay at one hotel and stay in that area for the duration of your stay.
It’s not so feasible to just rent a car in Stone Town and cruise around the island. I’ve heard of some people doing this, but the police road blocks on the island make it less than ideal. However, if you are stuck on where to concentrate your efforts, then hopefully this part will help.
If you want the most beautiful beaches
The best beaches in Zanzibar are in the Nungwi and Kendwa area in my opinion. Paje and the area in the southeast are also very beautiful.
If you like the big 5* all inclusive resorts
If you are keen for the big luxury resorts with multiple pools, big dining areas, and fancy common areas, then I think Nungwi will be your best bet. The beaches are fantastic here but the all inclusive style resorts here are big and luxurious.
If you like boutique hotels on the beach
If you fancy upscale or midscale boutique hotels with beautiful beach views and luxurious accommodations but with few people, then my favorite areas are Matemwe and the southeast. The area of Michamvi is the boutique hotel capital in my opinion. Bwejuu, Paje, Jambiani all have really nice hotels as well.
The beaches here are also very nice in this part of the island.
- Zawadi Boutique Hotel (The Ultimate hotel)
- Matlai Boutique Hotel
- Mr. Kahawa
- Zanzibar Sunrise at Bandas
- Jua Retreat
If you want cheap accommodation
The beauty of Zanzibar is that it is quite developed for tourism and there are budget options in almost every part of the island. However, I’d say the cheapest places you can find accommodations are in Nungwi, Paje, and of course Stone Town.
How much do things cost in Zanzibar
Zanzibar is a big island and has been really developed for tourism in the past decade. Zanzibar offers a variety of accommodation options throughout its 2,500 square km of space.
Whether you’re a luxury honeymooner with an unlimited budget or a budget backpacker, there are options available for everyone.
Africa in general is an expensive area to travel around so right off the bat, I would temper your expectations if you’re a budget traveler with ideas of Southeast Asia or Central American prices. It is much more expensive here and you will not find delicious $1 pad Thai on the streets.
There is not much a of a street food scene in Zanzibar that compares to that of Asia. For the most part, you’ll visit tourist centric restaurants run by locals or tourist centric restaurants run by foreigners. The price for a main dish of grilled calamari with rice will be around $6-$10.
There are some restaurants that are part of hotels and the more upscale that hotel is, you can expect to pay more. Local beers like Serengeti and Safari can be had for about $3 for a 500ml bottle and liquor based drinks are slightly more.
Of course, local prices will be lower than this but you will need to find the local spots which are always away from the main beach area.
Zanzibar is an island through and through
Zanzibar is a beautifl tropical island and feels like it. The different areas of Zanzibar are all tourist focused and life mostly revolves around the hotels and resorts. This means, there isn’t much life outside of the beach and hotels surrounding them. The exception is of course in Stone Town which is a proper city.
Zanzibar is large in size but you won’t really travel much between the different towns. You can rent a scooter yes but there are so many police checkpoints that will probably force you to pay bribes that it isn’t a feasible option to travel around.
Zanzibar is very different than say Bali which is also an island with a village like vibe in places like Canggu and Pererenan but offers total first world amenities like trendy restaurants, bars, cafes, and the like. If you’re a digital nomad looking to spend extended time in one place, I would highly recommend Bali over Zanzibar. The infrastructure on Bali is much more developed and the cost of living in Bali is half of what it would be on Zanzibar.
The currency in Zanzibar
Zanzibar uses the Tanzania Shilling (TZS). For almost all tourist centric hotel, prices will be quoted to you in dollars to keep things simple. While you’re at the resort, costs of services and goods will also be in USD. If you stay in a more rustic guesthouse or backpackers spot, it’s more likely you’ll see prices in Shillings.
If you dine outside your resort at a local restaurant, you can expect to pay in shillings. In essence, locals mostly always use shillings so it’s good to have some Tanzanian cash on you.
Hotels mostly accept credit cards but expect to pay a surcharge of 4-5%. Restaurants and bars outside of a big resort are mostly on a cash basis.
ATM Fees are outrageous
One thing that really stood out to me was just how crazy the costs of using ATMs are. They must be some of the most expensive ATMs I’ve ever seen.
Having traveled in Zanzibar for over a month, I had to visit the ATMs numerous times because many things are done in cash. ATMs are extremely pricey, with fees ranging from $6-9 per use!
Even worse, the ATMs cap out at 400,000 shillings which is $180. This won’t get you very far if you need to pay hotel bills in cash! You will need to visit the ATM numerous times and pay that fee each time. If you do not have a no fee debit card like Charles Schwab (US readers only sadly), then you should look into bringing USD or EUR cash and exchanging them in Stone Town.
Diving and Snorkeling in Zanzibar
Zanzibar is a paradise for lovers of underwater life. I spent many days diving in Zanzibar so I have lots of advice to offer. Although Zanzibar doesn’t compare to the diving I did on the nearby islands of Mafia Island and Pemba Island, it will offer vacation goers with more than enough to satisfy.
As Zanzibar is a huge island, there are numerous areas to scuba dive in. Depending on where you stay (refer to the sections above), it will likely dictate where you can dive. For example, if you are staying in Nungwi, it’s unlikely you’ll want to go scuba diving in the southeast area of Paje. The drive alone would be almost 2 hours each way.
The most popular place in Zanzibar to scuba dive and snorkel is without a doubt the Mnemba Atoll. Located in Zanzibar’s northeast, this is a stunning marine park with crystal blue waters and loads of underwater life. It’s incredibly popular and everyone staying in the area like Nungwi, Kiwengwa, or Matemwe will be able to visit this area for a day of underwater activities.
The diving here, while popular, is not that great. The corals have been bleached to hell and there’s a ridiculous amount of over tourism. It’s completely packed full of people on all days making it not so enjoyable.
Diving in the southeast area of Paje
I dove in the southeast with Rising Sun divers while staying at the beautiful Zawadi Resort. This area is by far the most beautiful diving in Zanzibar. It’s undiscovered and untouched by the other dive shops making it a much more enjoyable experience.
Activities in Zanzibar
As you’d expect, there is as an endless amount of things to do in Zanzibar. Once you’re tired of laying on the beach, you can choose to do a variety of different tours from all around the island. I can’t list all of them because I don’t know all of them.
If you walk through Stone Town, you’ll find a huge list of activities that all the tour agents offer and the price is of course negotiable. While extremely popular, I would actually recommend a visit to one of the spice farms in Zanzibar. It seemed like a super touristy thing to do but I found it to be so educational and interesting, I did it twice!
Other than that, here are a list of things that are popular to do in Zanzibar:
- Spice Tour
- Mnemba Island visit
- Dolphin Swim tour (this is an ethically terrible tour so don’t do it)
- Prison Island tour
- Safari blue day trip
- Scuba Diving (all over the island)
- Snorkeling (literally everywhere)
- Jozani Forest to see the primates
- A visit to the Rock restaurant
- Kitesurfing in Paje
- Low tide reef tour
- Parasailing in Nungwi
- Dhow cruises (literally everywhere) for sunset or day time
Get out of Zanzibar
Zanzibar has more than enough to keep you occupied for weeks. The island is huge and different areas will give you something different.
However, surrounding Zanzibar is a sea of other options. Outside of the standard safari options like the Serengeti, the Selous, Ngorongoro crater etc, there are nearby islands that are worth visiting.
If you’re a scuba diver, then you will want to visit Mafia Island. While there are endless diving options in Zanzibar, they do not compare whatsoever to Mafia Island. This is perhaps the best diving in East Africa offering crazy amounts of fish life and beautiful corals.
Mafia Island is also much more rustic and lesser developed than Zanzibar. The beaches are more wild and you won’t any large resorts nearby. From Zanzibar, you will need to take a fligh tto Dar Es Salaam, and onwards to Mafia island.
Of the three Tanzanian islands, Pemba Island is without a doubt the least visited. This is good for those that are looking for a breathtaking and undiscovered tropical paradise. Pemba’s natural beauty is unmatched in my opinion. The beaches here are incredible and devoid of the beachboys and crowds that are all over Zanzibar. The hotels like the Aiyana are absolute paradise.
The island itself still feels like it lives in the old ways and while driving around, you will feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The diving on Pemba is also spectacular although not quite as amazing as Mafia Island. However, if you want great diving and great beaches, then Pemba is your place.
There are only a handful of hotels on this big island so expect to pay more for your trip here. This is not a budget travel destination so plan for it that way.
- Visiting Nungwi, Zanzibar: A Detailed Travel Guide
- The Ultimate Travel and Kitesurfing Guide to Paje, Zanzibar
- Visiting The Rock: Zanzibar’s Ultimate Restaurant With A View
- Hotel Review For The Park Hyatt Zanzibar: Luxury In Stone Town
- The Ultimate Guide To Diving & Snorkeling Mnemba Atoll, Zanzibar
- Cost of Living in Zanzibar: How Much It Costs To Live In Paradise
- Review Of The Matlai Boutique Hotel, Zanzibar: Paradise In Michamvi
- Review of Zanzibar Sunrise Bandas: Matemwe’s Paradise Getaway
- The Ultimate Travel Guide For Stone Town, Zanzibar
- Aiyana Hotel Review: Pure Luxury In Pemba Island
- The Ultimate Pemba Island Travel And Diving Guide
- Guide To Traveling Vilanculos and the Bazaruto Archipelago, Mozambique